“It’s been a lot of years. Really think you’re getting one past me?”—Beyonce
I can tell you this: I am not unhappy.
Not in that way that was overfamiliar, that aching way that twisted the sinew and clenched at the bone. I rarely despair in the new life I’ve built, not the way I did regularly three years ago, not about basic survival. Not over bills or the balances in bank accounts. Not as I would’ve when I would only allow myself to walk supermarket aisles with a hand cart in a futile attempt to trick my financial anxiety into confinement. I no longer tense at the price of yogurt. I do not lament the prohibitive cost of lump crab. I can fill a gas tank even when a station asks for well over 4 dollars a gallon. And where as recently as 2019, I could not imagine affording a two-bedroom apartment, my brain now occasionally braves the concept of a mortgage.
Someday isn’t quite so esoteric. Someday, if I wish it to, can very well exist on a calendar.
I still get sad. Still have days when angst resumes its reign. Still worry over all the things I’ve gotten wrong, am flailing at, will fail to do well in the future.
But I am not unhappy.
This presents a bit of a problem, as it relates to my writing. Unhappiness has, historically, seemed a necessary condition for my creative expression. I’ve favored a state of near-constant lament, of concentrated longing, of fear ululating in some sound-locked space just under the skin. Unhappiness: agitating, insistent, reliably inspiring.
In the absence of it, I have found my writing life quite quiet. I write in bursts. In streams that merely trickle. In stray words that fall from the stratus cloud of my mind like North Carolina drizzle, that misting precipitation inconsequential enough among the frequent sun showers and torrents that it barely rates mention.
Between attempts to write, I work words in more practical ways, ways visible to no one but me. Occasionally, while working, I find myself happy. Far more often I practice remaining content, something I am only just learning to do, now that a mental health professional has taught me a bit about how.
It is simple, I suppose, the practice itself. Every thought flows through a sieve. The health of the thought determines the ease of its journey. When we think the worst of ourselves and others, we cannot spare the expectation of a positive outcome, when the tool by which we measure our worth is any one other than the Scale of Existing, the pores of the sieve will clog. Very little passes cleanly through. And the labor of sorting all the impassable matter of low self-regard consumes far too much of our time.
A sieve too often muddied indicates some missing steps. An act of precognition, a thinning of unhelpful premonition, a liquifying of language, a pause before the pour. It has the simpler name—reframing—but I find that a longer arrangement of phrases better factors the effort the act requires.
If for 42 years, your thoughts have only known the work of sealing ceilings, razing bridges, bursting pipes, they cannot abruptly turn themselves the texture of water. They are novices at the positive, after years of medaling in negativity.
So in the past year or more, I’ve not made much of anything to read. But I’ve been working at words all the while. I’ve been training my brain to believe, if not yet the best, then at least, the better.
It begins with preempting, “You hurt me and therefore must never have loved me” then boiling it down to what feels more clear: “No one who loves me means me harm. I mean myself no harm. And when I am harmed, I can heal the impact without assigning ill-intent.”
It begins with catching, “You were miserable throughout middle school, so you’ll suck at helping your daughter make her way through it.” and pinching it between the pads of my fingers until it is more precise: “Because it was hard for you, you can make it much easier for her.”
It begins with, “I may never experience marriage” and strips it clean through to what’s pure: “There are infinite experiences of love. And every one of them is as accessible to you as you are to it.”
I will not insinuate that this isn’t an arduous work, reforming the refinery of the mind. It is tedious, painstaking. It siphons much of my time. But when the work is done well, its outcome is evident. Unhappiness can be alchemized. The thickest of our doubts can be made clear as vapor. When the worst threatens to warp our sense of what is and what, perchance, may be, we can believe, if not the best, then at the very valuable least, the better.